Advancing technology education in rural high schools across America
By Richard Pettey, Senior Advisor
Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education
Now more than ever, schools across the country are thinking about the role of flexible learning models in preparing students for successful futures. When millions of students were mandated to stay at home this past spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, the rapid shift to distance learning only further emphasized the need to equip schools with new and innovative resources for delivering high-quality education.
Launching a $600,000 challenge for tech skills development
Over the past year, my team at the U.S. Department of Education has been thinking about how to ensure students in rural schools can obtain the technology skills that will be demanded of the workforce in the coming years. We set out to design a program that will help rural communities create innovative education programs in technology-related career pathways, with the goal of increasing instructional capacity through distance learning and competency-based education.
We know that career opportunities in tech will only continue to grow over the next decade. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that jobs in computer and information technology occupations will grow 12 percent from 2018 to 2028, or the equivalent of more than 500,000 new jobs. The opportunity for rural students to work in tech from anywhere has become even more tangible — many companies have indicated that the recent shift to remote work could be permanent. So while we designed this program during a booming economy, the need for distance-enabled skills training has never been more apparent as we prepare students for a post-pandemic world.
With this in mind, last month we launched the Rural Tech Project, a $600,000 challenge to advance rural technology education and prepare students for the careers of today and tomorrow. The U.S. Department of Education invites high schools and local educational agencies to propose technology education programs that use competency-based distance learning. This open innovation challenge will support educators in using both distance and blended learning, as well as competency-based education — a personalized learning approach enabling students to master skills at their own pace.
New funding and on-the-ground support for rural schools
Every rural community is different, and what works well in one place, may not work in another. We know, though, that rural educators everywhere have novel ideas for new learning opportunities; they need resources and support to design programs based on what they know will work best for their students.
I saw the inaccessibility of technology education firsthand when I worked in Mississippi. Before moving to Jackson, the state’s capital and only urban metro, to teach high school Spanish in 2013, I spent a summer in the Mississippi Delta, training to become a teacher at a Quitman County elementary school. The disparity in access to tech infrastructure and instructional resources, compounded by teacher shortages, could not have been more evident between the two areas — and these factors are all critical to developing high-quality technology education pathways.
I later helped open a charter school in Jackson, where our scholars were able to access high-speed internet on their one-to-one Chromebooks through a fiber connection. We were able to hire a computer science teacher so students could learn how to code beginning in the fifth grade. These are things that probably wouldn’t have been possible in rural Mississippi, at least not at scale. The average student in both Jackson and Quitman County lives below the poverty line, but irrespective of that poverty, students in Jackson still had access to resources and instructional capacity that students in Quitman County simply didn’t. There is an obvious equity issue at play here: rural students in Mississippi will have a more difficult time matriculating into the high-quality, good-paying, and in-demand jobs that require tech skills. Bringing these pathways to rural communities will help those students climb the income ladder and end cycles of poverty.
To help close this gap, the Rural Tech Project will empower rural educators and communities with resources to create technology education programs that are customized for their students and local needs. Up to five finalists will each receive an equal share of the initial $500,000 cash prize pool and progress to Phase 2, a two-year implementation period. They will have on-the-ground assistance, expert mentorship, and access to virtual resources as they plan, run, refine, and report on their programs. This support will include working with a local Community Engagement Manager, who will assist with program setup, implementation, and evaluation for the two years. One grand-prize winner will receive an additional $100,000.
Resources available for the education community
The Rural Tech Project has curated resources to help entrants develop comprehensive program proposals. The resources provide support around topics ranging from program design and delivery to engaging community stakeholders. For those looking to explore the topics of this challenge more generally, we have collected reading and resources for learning more about key topics such as technology education and distance learning.
Through this challenge, we are beginning to spin the flywheel. Over the course of the Rural Tech Project, we will compile insights from all finalists and publish lessons learned as resources for other communities. We believe firmly that distance-enabled technology education can be scaled in rural areas across the country and can provide new opportunities for students and families. By learning from the student-centered models in this project, we hope to help other schools create their own technology education programs and increase access to skills for rewarding, in-demand careers.
High schools and local educational agencies interested in participating in the Rural Tech Project should submit a program proposal by October 8, 2020. Learn more and sign up for challenge updates at ruraltechproject.com.
About the author
Richard grew up in Decatur, Alabama, and graduated from Auburn University in 2013. Upon graduation, Richard moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where he taught Spanish at a public high school for two years through Teach For America. Following his time in the classroom, he worked with RePublic Charter Schools to open the first charter school in the state of Mississippi. In 2017, Richard moved to Washington, D.C., to work for Senator Lamar Alexander, focusing on higher education and career and technical education (CTE). He currently leads CTE policy and initiatives at the United States Department of Education’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education, where he coordinates the agency’s efforts on criminal justice reform, workforce development, and the future of work.